Nupedia (Wikipedia predecessor), 2000
It’s possible to view the Nupedia as the last gasp of authority in the face of knowledge-by-“community” but the jury might still be out on that, given Wikipedia’s various plateaus.
How do you know? There are a lot of ways we “know” things: the results of scientific experimentation or mathematical proof, experience, deduction, induction, rumor, a trusted source or authority, tradition, belief. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, each can work, or let you down.
The desire to know, and moreover to collect what’s known, in a tidy yet all-encompassing package, is ancient. Pliny the Elder gets credit for the first we know of, the Historia Naturalis, finished just a couple of years before he gave his life exploring intriguing clouds over what turned out to be Mt. Vesuvius, proving this work is riskier than it looks. Hundreds, thousands more, in untold forms and languages, Frances Bacon, Diderot, the Britannica, and on and on, have followed down the centuries.
As we all know, encyclopedias aren’t what they used to be, and likely never will be again. That’s due to the one you’re thinking about, sure, but the real story goes a bit further back, only a few months earlier, with the launch of an online effort, which, although it didn’t quite work out the way it was intended, did pave the way for that other one, and posed an age-old challenge for a new millennium: knowing how we know what we know.
A document that changed the world: The Nupedia, a Web-based encyclopedia project, co-created by Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales, 2000.
I’m Joe Janes of the University of Washington Information School, and that’s “Nupedia” as in N-U-pedia; N-E-W-pedia is an obvious mishearing even though that’s not how it was named, we’ll get to that shortly. The “pedia” part is easier, it’s part of what lexicologists call a back-formation, from “encyclopedia”, which itself comes from “enykylios paideia,” erroneous Greek for “general education,” what a learned person should know.
This particular pedia emerged from the early, heady days of the web as well as the open-source movement, dedicated to fostering freely-shared software and other intellectual works, including the GNU operating system, G-N-U, which Nupedia might have been sort of named after. It was the joint brainchild of two outsize figures of the Internet age: Jimmy Wales, the former options trader who carefully pasted updates into his World Book encyclopedia as a child, and Larry Sanger the doctoral student in epistemology who was casting around for something to do post-Y2K.
It’s difficult to separate their various roles and contributions, not to mention separate versions of events, and stronger people than I have gone mad trying, but here’s a thumbnail. Larry was hoping to build a “highly reliable, peer-reviewed resource that fully appreciated and employed the efforts of subject area experts, as well as the general public”. Jimmy wanted to build something that would take advantages of the aspects of the Internet he thought most valuable and salient: freedom, interactivity, the power of the open-source movement, and even fun, to “distribute a free encyclopedia to every single person on the planet in their own language.”
They were probably doomed from the start. Nupedia had worthy aims, and in many ways tried to replicate the authority structures and systems that print encyclopedias and other “respectable” sources use, including an advisory board and core set of experts and editors with appropriate backgrounds and pedigrees, a 7-step peer-review and editing system, and so on.
They connected online via their mutual interest in philosophy, particularly Ayn Rand’s objectivism, which tells us “facts are facts, independent of any consciousness. No amount of passionate wishing, desperate longing or hopeful pleading can alter the facts.” This gets reflected in early Nupedia rules insisting on integrating multiple viewpoints to achieve a lack of bias or perspective.
Larry established and promulgated those initial rules in early 2000, and they generated considerable interest and participation; the first article to be completed, on “Atonality,” complete with 14 footnotes, 27 references and a discography, was finalized that September. It was, though, an excruciatingly slow and laborious process, which produced a grand total of fewer than two dozen entries in that first year. Jimmy tried to write one, on a topic he knew well, options-pricing theory, and said it felt like homework. Not a good sign.
Somewhere around New Year’s Day of 2001 – and here stories diverge again – one of them got the idea of using a wiki, essentially a web site that could be edited by anybody, as a way to kickstart the slow pace, to improve workflow and efficiency. Larry sends out an email to the mailing list with the now-famous subject line “Let’s make a wiki” and calling it “an idea to add a little feature to Nupedia”. If only he suspected. Initial reaction was lukewarm, the Nupedia faithful felt it was a bit too informal and unstructured, but nonetheless Wikipedia.com (the .org came later) was launched on January 15; within a day the first article, on the letter U, was up; within 2 weeks there were 600 articles, then more than 1,000 by mid-February, and more than 20,000 within the year. Wikipedia is a classic example of unforeseen consequences.
Obviously, Wikipedia quickly overshadowed its ancestor; Nupedia was effectively shut down by 2003, Larry had been laid off by Jimmy’s company the year before, though Larry’s personal vision of a reliable, contributory online encyclopedia persisted, launching the infelicitously-named Citizendium project in 2007, which met a similar fate. Jimmy of course became the world-famous if occasionally uncomfortable God-King of Wikipedia and their messy breakup has been sport for Internet historians and gossipmongers ever since.
If not for the Nupedia – and moreover the creatively volatile combo that was Larry and Jimbo, it seems likely something like Wikipedia would have developed, but how big, how popular, how transformative, we shall never know. Traditional encyclopedias have relied on long publishing histories, established track records, authors with impressive credentials chosen by thoughtful editors attempting to assemble and shape a coherent package representing the state of our knowledge. Wikipedia goes exactly the opposite way; let everybody have a crack at it, and what emerges is what “we” “know.” The increasing calcification and bureaucracy that Wikipedia has suffered in the last several years aren’t surprising; bottom up work isn’t as easy or as easy to manage as it sounds.
Print encyclopedias are stable; what’s on page 976 of Volume IX will be there tomorrow as it was yesterday, which is reassuring if problematic in a world that changes all the time. With Wikipedia, it’s never quite so sure – you can’t access the same Wikipedia twice, not only because the reality it’s trying to represent is changing, it’s changing as well. It’s one thing to know that the world changes, it’s another not to be able to find the same fact again, maybe because it’s not a fact any more, or because some editor or committee or flame warrior decided it shouldn’t be there any more. And don’t even get me started on their preference for verifiability over truth or accuracy.
This seems somehow more arbitrary than the top-down approach, or perhaps just differently arbitrary; it’s either one expert’s judgment, bias, prejudice, with an editorial infrastructure to catch or to reinforce it, or it’s lots of people with varying judgments and biases, axes to grind, who somehow have to come to consensus on what’s what.
Which of course, ‘twas ever thus, and also true for all the other encyclopedias ever created. Knowledge is socially constructed, and comforting as it might be to believe that facts are facts, it’s not that simple, not by a long shot. No fact exists in a vacuum, never has, never will. Yesterday’s “fact” can be today’s misunderstanding and tomorrow’s superstition, or vice versa. If you “know” that witches cause disease or famine, then executing them to purify and safeguard your community makes perfect sense. On the other hand, if you “know” that little unseeable bugs cause disease, spending large amounts of money and time to cure and prevent them makes sense. At least until some new “knowledge” comes along.
There have been imagined visions of similar tools or projects; in the 1930’s, H. G. Wells saw his “World Brain” idea as a means of forestalling totalitarianism by promoting universal understanding; the Encyclopedia Galactica features in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series as well as in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and a work by that same name is the stodgy foil to the much hipper Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, about which it is said, “though it cannot hope to be useful or informative on all matters, it does make the reassuring claim that where it is inaccurate, it is at least definitively inaccurate. In cases of major discrepancy it was always reality that's got it wrong.” Did I mention this is episode #42 in my series?
Like it or not, there’s nothing new here, and it’s true for each of us and for all of us. We construct knowledge, individually and societally, in a messy, bumpy, uneven, imperfect, ever-changing process, and ultimately that knowledge changes us as well. As it’s always been, who gets to say, and how and why we say it, profoundly matters.